January 20, 1942: The Wannsee Conference set a new course for how the Nazis would deal with the Jews. Wannsee, a suburb outside Berlin, was where the "Final Solution" was formulated: the complete elimination of the Jewish People.
The drafted document contained 16 signatures from all the upper ministries of the German establishment. Of these 16 signatories, eight held PhD’s. Similarly, 43% of the concentration camp officers were either MD’s or PhD’s. Goebbels, the propaganda minister, had three PhD’s.
The mask of German “culture and civilization” was ripped off. No longer could mankind claim that “education" equals "morality.”
At the Wannsee Conference, the greatest Nazi minds formalized a plan to murder millions of Jews. One of the last things Hitler did, just before committing suicide, was to apologize to the German people for not finishing the job.
The Killing Squads
Behind the advances of the German army were the Einsatzgruppen – special German commando units. Each consisted of 500 to 1,000 men. Their sole job was to follow the German army, round up all the Jews in the newly-conquered towns, and murder them – man, woman and child.
The Nazis would herd the Jews to the outskirts of town, often to anti-tank trenches. Sometimes the Jews would be forced to dig their own graves.
The Nazis would line the Jews up, and force them to undress. Then they would shoot them into the trenches. In one incident lasting three days, over 52,000 men women and children were killed outside of Kiev, in the Babi Yar forest.
Some people were shot and fell into the trenches, but were not killed. They waited until night, when the Germans were gone, and clawed their way out of the pile of bodies. Those who were lucky – who were not killed by the locals – lived to tell their story.
Over 1.5 million people were killed this way.
Testimony: The Fate of the Jews of Trembowla
On April 7, 1943, about six months after my father had been taken away and murdered at Belzec, the Germans entered Trembowla, a small city in western Ukraine. Together with the Ukrainian police, they surrounded the city. It was early morning, and nobody knew what was about to happen. Was it going to be city-wide Aktion or only a smaller roundup? Everyone who could, escaped into hiding. Some wanted to run to the nearby forests, but were prevented from doing so by soldiers and policemen stationed all around the city. Arie went into a bunker with about forty or fifty people; thank G-d, they were never discovered by the Germans.
My mother, of blessed memory, refused to go underground, and at 54 years of age, she would not even consider trying to survive in the forest. So she, along with about 1,100 Jews that included my aunts, uncles and cousins, was rounded up. The Germans decided that transporting this group to Belzec would be too costly. Instead, 1,100 people were ordered to undress and then, in underwear, were marched through the city of Trembowla to a little village called Plebanowka, about two kilometers outside the city limits.
My mother had a heavy gold chain and some money with her. She gave these valuables to my little cousin, Herzale, who was about seven years old. When the group passed a small bridge, she told Herzale to hide underneath, instructing him to wait until dark and then find Arie back in Trembowla and give him the packet of money. Herzale did just as he was told and managed to survive until two months before liberation when Anna Bartestka, a woman in town, betrayed his whereabouts for five kilos of sugar.
Ditches had already been dug for the Jews from the Trembowla ghetto. The group was lined up at the edge of the ditches, and each received one bullet apiece before falling into the grave. The soldiers were instructed not to waste any more bullets. A Jew, they were told, was not worth two or three bullets. As a result, some people were not dead when they fell into the ditches. The Germans covered the corpses with dirt.
When I came back after liberation, the local Ukrainian peasants told me that for days they could see the earth moving in this mass grave, since many of the Jews had been buried alive. Some of these poor souls may have clawed their way out, but the local residents did not lift a finger to help them; indeed, they may well have finished off any who did manage to escape from the mound of corpses.
A day after the massacre, a young woman from Plebanowka, Nusia Grossberg, who was 19 years old, came to the site of the mass grave and sat beside it crying all night. Her mother, three sisters, and little brother had been killed and were among the pile of corpses. Nusia wept as the mass grave moved up and down, not caring if the Nazis found her. She, too, wanted to die.
In the morning, a peasant woman taking her cows to pasture found the young woman sobbing by the graveside.
"Run away," the peasant told her. "There's nothing you can do for them. Save yourself. You're young. You can live."
After protesting, Nusia did run away. Today, she lives in Brooklyn with her two children and grandchildren.
The final liquidation of the ghetto in Trembowla took place in July 1943. After the liberation, only fifty or sixty people from the entire community had survived.